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Stealing Isn't Saving, But Sharing Isn't Stealing

from the time-to-learn-some-economics dept

Last week we wrote about Janko Roettger's GigaOm post concerning the fact that file sharing continues to grow. We focused on how the MPAA and the RIAA might be declaring "victory" too soon. Amusingly, the MPAA's Alex Swartsel took offense to Janko's article and posted one of the organization's typically laughable responses, in which they attempt to scold Janko for his "intellectually dishonest" claim that file sharing is "socially acceptable." Let's just say that between the Swartsel and Janko, one of the two is in denial, and it's not Janko.

The part that the MPAA takes issue with is the following part from Janko's post:
The U.S. credit ratings downgrade, tumbling stocks and international instability have made not just financial analysts nervous this week. Consumers are also starting to wonder whether weíre about to enter another recession. Whenever that happens, people start to tighten their belts and cut unnecessary expenses -- like paying for movies and TV shows.... With memories of the housing slump still fresh, many people could simply return to BitTorrent and download movies for free instead of going to the movies or paying for VOD.
It's pretty clear that there is no statement of support or cheering on or anything here. Janko is simply reporting a simple fact. Some group of people will continue to find unauthorized means of accessing content a better deal than authorized offerings. I don't see how that's objectionable at all. It's a pretty easy prediction to make because who honestly doesn't think it's true?

But, to the MPAA, this is "intellectually dishonest" and the equivalent of Janko supporting "shoplifting clothing." Wow. You know what would be intellectually dishonest? Pretending that lots of people don't use file sharing would be intellectually dishonest. Pretending that a bad economy combined with dumb moves by movie studios might drive fewer people to unauthorized file sharing would be intellectually dishonest. Repeating blatant falsehoods from the MPAA would be intellectually dishonest. Comparing stealing of physical goods to someone making a copy of a digital file would be intellectually dishonest. Calling out a reporter for accurately making a point would be intellectually dishonest.

What's not intellectually dishonest is accurately reporting what's happening.

But the MPAA and Swartsel are so in denial that apparently they've decided to "shoot the messenger." This is all too typical of the MPAA. Rather than adapt and deal with reality, the folks there like to pretend the world is a very different place and will attack any messenger who shows otherwise. Honestly, Swartsel's post reads the same way an MPAA blog post would have read a decade ago if it had a blog back then. It's full of misleading or downright incorrect claims:
T-shirts and jeans arenít made out of zeroes and ones, at least not yet. But just because movies and TV shows and songs can now be packaged and distributed as data, not just as film reels or vinyl records or DVDs, and can be acquired or distributed with a few clicks of a mouse, doesnít mean that the labor and time and money that went into making them is any less meaningful.
No one -- especially not Janko -- has claimed that "the labor and time and money that went into making" movies is "less meaningful." Swartsel is simply changing the topic because she can't actually argue against what Janko has said -- because it's accurate. So she's pretending he said something entirely different. The fact that labor and time and money goes into something doesn't make a difference. I put "labor and time and money" into Techdirt, and then it's my job to figure out how to make a living out of it. It does me no good to sit around and say "but I worked hard -- now pay me."

No one cares how hard you worked or how much money you spent. People buy things based on the market. They buy things based on the intersection of supply and demand -- and this is an economics lesson that the MPAA and Swartsel apparently remain ignorant of.
We doubt many people will subscribe to the kind of intellectual dishonesty that suggests that itís fine Ė or really, that itís inevitable Ė to steal as a way of saving. But itís troubling that by suggesting that stolen content available on rogue sites and elsewhere is just another substitute good, Roettgers is tacitly arguing that content theft is legitimate and socially acceptable.
He made no such argument, tacitly or not. I will, however, make the argument that for a very large segment of the population, it absolutely is socially acceptable. It is not socially acceptable to me. I don't engage in it myself and never have. But it's intellectually dishonest to pretend that many, many people don't find it socially acceptable. If the MPAA were really concerned about adapting to the changing market, the first step would be actually recognizing that. But that's not how the MPAA works. It works by denying reality, and then running to Congress to get them to change the laws because its member studios don't want to have to change. Tellingly, it appears that Swartsel's last job was... working for Congress.

It would be nice, just once, if the MPAA (and the RIAA) could actually be intellectually honest. If the folks there could admit some basic facts: the market has changed and many, many people find unauthorized file sharing socially acceptable. If you start at that point, and then say, "now what do we do about it?" you can come up with all sorts of productive answers. But that's not what they do at all. They just keep trying to demonize it, and don't seem to realize that every time they insist reality isn't real, people trust them even less.

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  1. identicon
    Patty, 16 Aug 2011 @ 9:56am


    I was watching a cam version of Cowboys & Aliens a few weeks ago and was amazed at how much the quality has improved in just a few years ago (BTW, no lost sale as I would not have paid to see it given the reviews). In a few years someone will be able to sit in a theater with a camera lens the size of a pencil eraser and capture a film at near 100% quality. The MPAA has to accept this and deal with it. There are so many opportunities for increased distribution if they would stop crying in their beer and take advantage of technology instead of bemoaning it. Also, make better movies.

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